Rockmore: Elevenses

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(Host) Ever give much thought to the number eleven? Well, according to
mathematician and commentator Dan Rockmore, tomorrow would be a good day
for it.

(Rockmore) No, when you wake up tomorrow, your digital
alarm clock won’t be lying and you won’t be seeing double… or triple…
because tomorrow really will be eleven-eleven-eleven. That’s right, it’s
the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of this
century!  So, let’s take a moment to celebrate the number known at craps
tables around the world as "the natural."

First off, eleven
does have some nice mathematical characteristics. It’s a prime number,
meaning that it can only be divided evenly by itself and one. That
already makes eleven something of a rare bird and worth some
recognition. A more interesting fact is that if you can find a number
divisible by 11 – and you then reverse the digits in that number – the
reversed number is also divisible by eleven. So for example, 132 is 11
times 13 and when reversed as 231 we get a number that is 11 times 21.

the truth is, dear old eleven is largely overshadowed by those first
ten numbers. Who ever heard of a Top-eleven list?  Countdowns start at
ten. Poor eleven, always the odd number out!

Eleven’s outsider
nature is reinforced by its name. Who hasn’t noticed that after we get
through the numbers one to nine, most of the numbers have names that
give a pretty good indication of what they stand for: thirteen – three
and ten, twenty-seven – seven and twenty, two hundred – well, two
hundreds… anyway, you get the picture – or the number as it were – but
where’s the clue in eleven? E-leven – sounds to me like an internet
bread bakery! Why don’t we say something like: ten, one-teen, two-teen,

Well, in fact, there’s a pretty interesting story in
the name eleven. It comes from the German word "einlif" meaning "one
left," or what ‘s left over after you’ve tried to count to eleven using
your fingers. That’s right, eleven is the number that sends us to our
feet. The same is true for twelve, derived from the word for "two left,"
meaning two left over, and which despite its further suggestion of
looking to your toes, has nothing do with two left feet.

So the
outcast eleven reminds us that the decimal system we use for the
everyday representation of numbers, based on writing numbers as
collections of powers of ten most likely comes from the simple fact that
those earliest of Germanic accountants used their hands as computers,
communicating something like the number of sheep in the flock by using
their fingers, a notion later memorialized in the use of the word
"digit" for each of the places in a number.

My own earliest
memories of eleven are decidedly non-mathematical. I can still recall
puzzling over the mysterious word "Elevenses" that I only later learned
meant the morning snack of bread and honey for dear old Winnie the Pooh
and Paddington Bear.

Hmm. Maybe that E-leven bakery isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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